What My Smart Shoes Taught Me

How you track your steps matters way less than who you do it with.

Illustration by Yann Le Bec

The majority of wearable fitness devices on the market are wristbands or watches. Yet that’s not the most logical place for monitoring the steps you take, the distance you cover, and other workout metrics. The real action is happening on the ground.

That’s why changing the locus of tracking from the wrist to the feet might seem like a good way to remove the friction that keeps people from adopting trackers for the long term.

There are over a dozen options: smart socks, insoles, clip-on trackers, foot pods for the laces or tops of shoes, trackers embedded into the sole, and even GPS-enabled shoelaces. The makers of such devices say they can improve not just how fast and how far you run, but also how well you run. They do this by tracking your foot landing patterns, the cadence of your steps, and how much time your feet spend on the ground or in stride. Trackers on the feet should be more accurate than, say, a Fitbit, which doesn’t usually differentiate your movements very well, given that it rings up steps when you run up the stairs and when you gesticulate while talking on the phone. By tracking from your feet, there’s no false sense of accomplishment about how many “steps” you took.

As a committed long-distance runner and aspiring minimalist, I wanted to try what I figured would be the least fussy and most effective of these options: the $100 HOVR Sonic Connected running shoes by Under Armour. I found that measuring workout data from the feet indeed has advantages — but also that better tracking technology isn’t the answer to helping more people live healthier lives.

Trial runs

Under Armour was one of the first companies to come out with a connected shoe, and its second iteration is the HOVR Sonic. It lets you lace up for a run and leave the phone and wristband behind. Sensors embedded in the midsole track a wide array of metrics — including distance, duration, stride length, average pace, and cadence — which will show up on Under Armour’s MapMyRun app once you return home and sync up with your phone. (If you do want to run with your phone, the shoe can send you updates on your pace via the headphones, and the app has a few audio workouts to urge you along.)

“A lot of wearables will get cast aside because unfortunately, they don’t possess the magic ability to change human behaviors long-term.”

You can treat these shoes like a normal pair — there’s nothing to plug in. Its batteries are supposedly designed to outlast the life of the shoe, and the built-in analytics will alert you when the mileage is getting high and it’s time to buy a new set. However, your personal standards for shoe condition may vary from the manufacturer’s. I am skeptical that we need to be purchasing new kicks every few months. So the claim that the battery never runs out might not apply for everyone.

Despite chic marketing images of sexy, sweaty athletes pounding down grimy alleyways, these shoes aren’t really as freeing as they’re made out to be. The metrics that the HOVR Sonic tracks — and the recommendations on the app — are most meaningful if you run in an urban setting with flat, continuous surfaces; you run steadily without pause; and you like shoes with thick soles that require a heel-striking gait. If you run on uneven terrain in natural settings like I do (and get frequently sidetracked by flora and fauna), it’s basically worthless to collect information about your cadence and pace.

Sensors in the midsole of the HOVR Sonic Connected register distance, duration, stride length, average pace, and cadence. (Photo courtesy of Under Armour)

Naturally it follows that the HOVR Sonic Connected shoes perform better than wrist-based trackers for treadmill runs. Fitbits and the like require back-and-forth arm motion to recognize that you’re moving, but these shoes will know you’re running even if your hands are resting on the treadmill handles. (A hack for Fitbits is to strap it to your ankle, but that’s cumbersome.)

So the shoe might help seasoned runners get a bit more information about their workouts. That’s all fine and good. But there seems to be a bigger promise that all wearable technology should be addressing: Can these shoes help people develop healthier habits?

People power

Ted Robertson, a managing director with the applied behavioral science nonprofit ideas42, watched me scamper off for my first runs with HOVR Sonic shoes and questioned their value. “A lot of wearables will get cast aside because unfortunately, they don’t possess the magic ability to change human behaviors long-term,” he said. “They have a limited impact for most of us, and seem to work best for people who are already intrinsically motivated to be more active or adopt healthy habits.”

Given that I’ve already been a committed runner since age 12, he’s saying that these shoes are just a novelty for me. The truth is that I’ll run whether or not I track my steps. It just happens to be fun for me to know exactly what I ran. But what about the pre-diabetic senior who doesn’t have an exercise habit and desperately wants to get in better shape? Or the millions of people who have been told by their doctors to lose weight? Multiple studies predict that just playing around with certain shoes or a Fitbit isn’t going to help them get healthier. But if they joined a team or club, tracked their progress with other people, and made a game out of it, their chances of avoiding a chronic diagnosis go up.

I’d love for my shoes to tell me if I am in the top 10 percent of runners in my neighborhood and send me an invite for a post-run breakfast with all of them.

We know that the biggest determinants of health outcomes are not physiological, they’re social. Mortality rates are much higher among the socially isolated, regardless of lifestyle choices. In a recent experiment, study participants committed to various goals for steps in a day. Some of them did it essentially on their own, while others were in a game, in which their step counts were compared to those of teammates. The people who played the game were more active and improved more on health measures than the people who used trackers alone.

The future of wearables is in building community, which is better for customers and ultimately better for profits. I could imagine new social groups forming through gyms and fitness organizations that sponsor wearable-tech assisted competitions and ongoing challenges. I’d love for my shoes to tell me if I am in the top 10 percent of runners in my neighborhood by distance and send me an invite for a post-run breakfast with all of them.

The next generation of wearables should capitalize more on this fundamental insight about human nature and activity: We’re better together, no matter where on our bodies we’re wearing our tracking tech.